PTSD, Abortion, and Chronic Pain
As established in the last segment, abortion is intrinsically traumatic, although not all will be traumatized by it. But some women will develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder known as post-abortion stress syndrome, or PAS. The existence of PAS is in dispute in the medical community, for what I can only imagine are ideological reasons that have nothing to do with health or care. As discussed previously, even abortion clinic workers are traumatized by what they are doing, and many of them claim to be doing it for benevolent reasons. It is clear then that the perceived benefit of abortion is no defense against being traumatized by it. Many women do not express regret over their abortions because they believe the abortions helped them, and sometimes they even believe the abortions helped the unborn child. We’ve already seen, though, that guilt and regret are absolutely unnecessary in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. The perpetrator can indeed be traumatized by her own actions because the traumatic response occurs in the brain at a fundamental level that does not consider the belief systems she may have constructed that justify these actions. When she develops post-traumatic stress disorder, she is responding to the perceived threat against her own life that is inherent in the destruction of the life held so intimately in her own body.
But while guilt is not a factor in the development of PAS, a feeling of helplessness is, according to Dr. Robert C. Scaer, MD, author of The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma Dissociation and Disease (The Haworth Medical Press, 2001). In his words, PTSD “is produced by threat, shock, or injury that occurs in a state of helplessness,” (Scaer, p.xxi). In the animal kingdom, we see three different responses in situations which threaten the survival of the animal: the fight/flight/freeze response. Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight response. The freeze response is less commonly understood, according to Dr. Scaer. When the animal is helpless, unable to flee or defend itself against a threat, nature provides a third mechanism by which it might possibly survive: the animal freezes in an instinctual and unconscious reflex into a state of immobility, created and sustained by the parasympathetic nervous system, a division of the autonomic nervous system.
Sometimes the predator, faced with prey that is suddenly and entirely immobile as if dead, gives up and the animal survives – “playing possum.” Additionally, in the freeze response, the brain releases endorphins, which we all know as the body’s natural pain killers. Dr. Scaer remarks, “Whether this analgesia has survival value, or is a gift from a greater Being to prevent a painful death is open to debate,” (Scaer, p. 16). Another reason for the animal to be dissociated from the pain might be to keep it from its natural desire to tend to its wounds before it has completely reached safety, just as endorphins work in the flight or fight response to keep the animal from feeling pain that would impede either action.
Following the freeze response, there is a “discharge” of this autonomic nervous energy, which has been stored while the animal mimicked death. Animals in the wild and in the laboratory have been observed to tremble and perspire when they arouse from the freeze response, and oddly enough, the first movement they make is often a postural representation of what they were doing at the exact moment the freeze response was invoked – their legs will work as though running, for example, if they froze while being pursued, even while they are still lying on the ground. This is indicative of a period of unconsciousness or amnesia.
Dr. Scaer postulates that the freeze response exists in humans, but not usually to the extent it is seen in the animal kingdom. He describes it as the psychological equivalent of dissociation, in which specific, anxiety-provoking thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations are separated from the rest of the psyche: “…people [suffering trauma]…will frequently relate that they felt as if they were ‘in shock.’ This is often related as a sense of detachment, numbness, and even confusion. Time often seems to stand still. Some patients report that they feel as if they are detached and removed from their body, occasionally reporting the events of the trauma as if they were seeing them as a third person…many of the posttraumatic symptoms that occur often for years after the unresolved trauma are characteristic of dissociation, or recurrence of the symptoms of freezing,” (Scaer, p. 19).
Humans also don’t seem to have a period of discharge of autonomic nervous system energy after trauma, either, which leads Dr. Scaer to speculate that “the self-perpetuated circuitry involved in kindling is remarkably compatible with absence of discharge…” (Scaer, p. 20). “Kindling” results from the build-up of nervous energy that is not dissipated. Dr. Scaer believes that without the dissipation of this autonomic nervous system energy, “the ‘survival brain’ may continue to perceive that the threat continues to exist, and is unable to relegate it to memory as a past experience,” (Scaer, p. 21). In other words, post-traumatic stress disorder is physiologically expressed by autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
Kindling refers to the spontaneous combustion of materials reaching a certain critical temperature. In neurological terms, kindling refers to the process by which electrical impulses can add up and trigger spontaneous responses. The PTSD nervous system smolders with undischarged energy that bursts into full flame, and the resulting neuropsychological symptoms include flashbacks, intrusive memories, cue-related memories, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias of events and places reminiscent of the trauma, memory and situation-induced arousal, mood changes, irritability, stimulus sensitivity (to light and sound, for example), exaggerated startle response, and insomnia. Furthermore, because the autonomic nervous system is involved, there are “often dramatic physical symptoms, including bowel disorders, myofasical pain, and cognitive impairment….We therefore seem to be dealing with a syndrome affecting all aspects of a person’s being, including body, mind, and spirit,” (Scaer, p. xxi).
This leads Dr. Scaer (and others) to the conclusion that “many of those chronic diseases that seem to be the most common,” and the most difficult to treat, “may well have their roots in the insidious systemic effects of traumatization,” (Scaer, p.21). He continues, “in fact, I believe that the most common complaint in current medical practice, that of persistent and unexplained chronic pain, has its roots in the persistent changes in brain circuitry associated with unresolved traumatization, and the continued tendency for dissociation to occur in the face of stress or threat,” (ibid). He describes the disorders resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder as psychophysiological, and they include fibroymalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and somatization disorders that drive people to doctor after doctor, seeking a diagnosis for that which apparently cannot be explained. Dr. Scaer is very sympathetic to these patients, adding that they suffer the burden of being retraumatized and devalued by a medical community that will deny the physical validity of their very real pain (Scaer, p. 81).
The physical complaints associated with post-traumatic stress disorder include headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, immune system problems, dizziness, chest pain and other pains throughout the body. NIMH explains that “Often, doctors treat the symptoms without being aware that they stem from PTSD. NIMH, through its education program, is encouraging primary care providers to ask patients about experiences with violence, recent losses, and traumatic events, especially if symptoms keep recurring.”
One of the most mysterious of the psychophysiological disorders is fibromyalgia. More than 90% of those diagnosed with fibro are women of reproductive age. Researchers have already noted that large numbers of those women diagnosed with fibromyalgia have some kind of trauma in their histories – most often, it is childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. The physical symptoms of fibromyalgia include: headaches, fatigue, pain, vertigo (dizziness), chest pain, irritable bowel syndrome, low-grade fever and flu-like feelings. It seems likely that Dr. Scaer and the National Institutes of Mental Health are correct in speculating that fibromyalgia and its cousins may actually be undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, undiagnosed in my opinion because physicians and researchers aren’t able to identify a source of trauma – but then, they aren’t looking for abortion in our medical histories. For the most part, it seems the medical community is standing around scratching its collective head while women get sicker and sicker with illnesses they can’t quite diagnose or understand.
As we can see from Dr. Scaer’s model of the freeze response, helplessness is a primary factor in determining whether a traumatic event will be traumatizing. According to the Elliott Institute’s report, Forced Abortion in America, eight in ten women who had abortions report they would have chosen to give birth instead if they had received support and encouragement from friends and family. The woman who aborts her child because she feels she has to, because she is financially, socially, or otherwise isolated and without help submits to a procedure that results in violent death, and is primed to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
Not all women who have abortions will develop PAS, as I’ve mentioned before, but that shouldn’t ease our minds. Most people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have multiple traumas in their histories which did not at that time trigger symptoms of PTSD, but which weakened them against future traumas, making them more susceptible to develop the disorder each time. Also, the symptoms of PTSD appear on a continuum – some will suffer less than others. Again, each successive traumatic event will be more difficult to handle, and, because of the kindling effect in the nervous system, it actually takes less severe trauma to incur the most severe results as time and stress march on. Occasionally, I have to take a second look at the title of my blogspot – abortion hurts. We have been practicing unrestricted abortion on demand in this nation for thirty years without regard to the consequences, and without medical research that determines whether or not this is really as benign a procedure as we are promised it will be. It's pretty clear to me, though, that the evidence is already in. Not only is abortion not benign, it is malignant, and it is making us sick.